Over the last few campaign cycles, Democrats have successfully developed a sophisticated petition-based infrastructure to generate emails for liberal campaigns and causes. Think of Change.org and Care2.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been forced to cobble together something altogether different: an expansive list of past candidates, organizations, conservative news outlets, and activists who will rent their email lists to Republican candidates.

Using this network, Republican candidates like Mitt Romney, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Rep. Allen West and dozens of others have grown massive online donor files in an expedited manner. For them, this network has been incredibly valuable as an online fundraising tool.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that for every Republican candidate who has taken advantage of this methodology there are many others who have (almost literally) lost their shorts in the attempt. These lists perform in an inequitable manner based on the nature of the office the candidate is running for, name ID and reputation of the opponent, as well as general awareness of the candidate. The timing of such fundraising appeals can also be a decisive factor.

Worst of all for Republicans, the prevalence of this tactic has generated a cadre of bad lists and questionable “email list brokers” who serve clients poorly on the way to depositing that client’s money in the bank. So if you’re a Republican campaign considering list rental, here’s what you need to know:

Understand how this process works

In order to protect the integrity of their list, organizations will not provide direct access to any email addresses. When you rent an email list, you’ll send completed email copy and HTML to the list owner or broker and they will send it to their list for you. The list owner will charge a one-time rental fee of anything from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars. You will agree on a date, time and price, and then fire off your creative.

Once the email is delivered, you should receive a report from the list owner outlining the number of emails delivered, the number of emails opened, as well as how many subscribers actually clicked on the links in your email.

Ask the right questions of your list broker

The list business is obscure and a large number of “email list brokers” have emerged to serve to connect candidates with organizations who rent their lists. In order to ensure you’re not getting a raw deal, here’s what you need to ask:

  • Are they interested in a quick sale or a long-term relationship? The best brokers are looking to help you succeed, not make a quick buck. Unfortunately, there are a number of brokers in this space who are more interested in making $2,000 right now, instead of helping you raise money.
  • What is the “agency fee” the list broker intends to take for making the connection for you? Up to 25 percent is common in the industry, but I’ve seen brokers up-charging as much as 300 percent.
  • How many middle men are sitting between you and the list owner? I’ve witnessed candidates paying up to three or four brokers before the list owner actually got their cash. That’s a quick way to increase your prices by 200 percent, but it sure doesn’t help the campaign or organization that’s renting an email list.
  • What is your list broker’s documented experience with the lists they are recommending? Are they recommending a list for financial reasons or because they know it will work for you? There’s a big difference.

Watch for click fraud

Given that list owners are sending the emails for you, it’s important to verify the accuracy of their claims regarding list size, open rates and click-through rates. One way to do it: include tracking pixels or similar technology inside the HTML you provide to list owners. It’s easier than you might think for organizations to use automated technologies to create fraudulent clicks on the emails you send so don’t give them the chance to take advantage of you.

Have realistic expectations

The reality is that most candidates are not well suited to a national online fundraising campaign using email list rentals. Successful national efforts with rented email lists require great name awareness, and it’s likely your little-known congressional candidate who’s running against an equally lesser known Democrat doesn’t have it. However, if your candidate is challenging Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, let’s turn on the email machine. We also find that federal candidates perform better than state candidates, although there is a growing market for state-based lists.

Lastly, look for lists that have been repeatedly rented by reputable candidates and brokers as opposed to lists with a lot of one-time rentals and no recurring business. Seeing repeat rentals is a great way to judge the quality of a list versus relying solely on the word of the list owner or broker.

If you follow these tips you can protect yourself from a very bad experience, and hopefully provide the funding that is fundamental for a victory on Election Day.

Kurt Luidhardt is Co-Founder (with his wife Kristen) of the Indiana-based Prosper Group, a Republican Digital Agency. He’s also part of a group of Republican digital agencies who run Conservative Connector, an email list brokering company located in Washington, D.C.